Unilateral trade measures and the fight against IUU fishing

June 2015

Illegal, unreported, and unregulated (IUU) fishing remains a major concern for the international community and for developing countries. The issue is of particular concern to Small Island Developing States (SIDs) and small, vulnerable economies, as it disproportionately affects many fisheries on which these states depend for food security, livelihood, and trade.

IUU fishing is a high priority for Caribbean SIDs because they continue to suffer significant economic losses and flagrant violations of their sovereignty and maritime jurisdiction due to illegal fishing. In 2010 the 17 CRFM/CARICOM Member States unanimously adopted the Castries (St. Lucia) Declaration on IUU fishing, establishing a broad policy framework to focus the region’s efforts on combating the problem.

The framework was further strengthened with the adoption of a Regional Strategy on Monitoring, Control, and Surveillance (MCS) to Combat IUU Fishing in the CARICOM / CARIFORUM Region in 2013. At the national level, countries have been reinforcing their domestic legislation and regulations, and strengthening MCS capacity by investing in physical assets such as maritime patrol vessels and monitoring and surveillance, such as Vessel Monitoring Systems (VMS).

IUU fishing exists, to a great extent, from chronic overcapacity in the fishing industry globally, coupled with inadequate management, including ineffective flag state control, high market demand and dynamic markets for fish and seafood, and of course, greed. When there is progress in addressing these underlying, fundamental issues it will be much easier to prevent, deter, and eliminate the problem.

A present there is no single comprehensive policy or legal regime for IUU fishing. It is addressed through various instruments that seek to control a range of irresponsible and unsustainable fishing and trading practices and activities along the value chain. The non-binding FAO International Plan of Action (IPOA) on IUU fishing is the most comprehensive instrument dealing with the problem to date. It addresses all sectors of the fishing industry, from flagging of vessels to fishing authorisation to landing and market-based controls on fish trade. When it enters into force, the FAO Port State Agreement will address an important part of the puzzle: closing fishing ports to fishing boats involved in IUU fishing.

IUU fishing is a multi-faceted, international problem and, as such, it is best addressed in a comprehensive manner through an overarching international framework built on cooperation among states. Given that fish is by far the single most traded commodity with nearly 38 percent of harvested fish entering into international trade, trade policy measures must form an integral part of any overarching policy to tackle the problem.  Trade policy measures can indeed be used to progressively close markets for fish and seafood originating from IUU sources, as well as influence states to take appropriate action to gradually strengthen fisheries management systems, and eliminate overcapacity in their fishing fleets.

In recent years, action to combat IUU seem to have been focused largely on the adoption of unilateral measures by states or trading blocs that are large markets for fish such as the EU. The US is now moving rapidly to develop its own unilateral response through the work of the Presidential Task Force on Combating IUU Fishing and Seafood Fraud. Given the extent of the problem and the slow pace or lack of decisive response by the international community, unilateral measures may be justified as a reasonable way to proceed at this time as they have been shown to be relatively effective. Nevertheless, there is need for caution regarding the creation of such policies and the way they are applied in practice.

The jury is still out on the application of the 2008 EU IUU Regulations. Their application and effects should be carefully monitored and analysed in the coming months and years. Of particular concern is the possibility for discrimination, restraint on trade, limited competition for fishing opportunities on the high seas, and the heavy, disproportionate burden they place on SIDS and other small, vulnerable economies. It is also worth noting that EU regulations could pose a heightened competitive risk in cases where catches are taken largely by small-scale operators. Thus far, the EU seems not to be going after its own member states and nationals who are engaged in IUU fishing with the same intensity, as it does against third states that compete with its fleet on the high seas.

A further weakness is that unilateral measures will have little or no effect on fish and fish products harvested by IUU fishing but aimed at domestic markets or for unregulated markets, so the unilateral measures could simply divert products to other markets. This is a real possibility given the massive market and extensive trade for fish and seafood globally.

For these reasons, unilateral measures are clearly not the best way to combat IUU fishing. They are more in the nature of temporary, stopgap measures that should eventually lead to the development of more comprehensive, cooperative, and long-term solutions. These measures should take the form of binding plurilateral and multilateral arrangements that would close not just a few large markets, but all markets globally to IUU fish and fish products. At the same time, this could address other dimensions of the problem. The best way to move forward is to have a system to combat IUU fishing that is effective and efficient, while at the same time not just fair, but be seen to be fair, equitable, transparent, and non-discriminatory.

Binding plurilateral and multilateral instruments could be built on the core measures within the FAO-IPOA on IUU fishing and the principles and arrangements within existing unilateral measures such as the EU IUU Regulations, supplemented by the principle underpinning the US Lacey Act to strengthen enforcement, an area that requires special attention. The idea is to use available tools that have been used successfully elsewhere, but scale up to regional and global levels.

Current unilateral measures will, I hope, create a more favourable environment for the development of multilateral and regional approaches. They could indeed be a game-changer in creating the impetus for stronger global and regional frameworks.

Finally, from the perspective of Caribbean SIDs – and most developing states for that matter – measures to enhance their capacity to manage the problem through the implementation of effective fisheries management regimes are critically important to effectively addressing the IUU problem over the long term. As noted earlier, unless this fundamental weakness is addressed, progress in preventing, deterring, and eliminating IUU fishing will be limited. Capacity building will require aid, training, and technical support.

Milton Haughton is a member of the E15 Expert Group on Fisheries and Oceans. He is the Executive Director of the Caribbean Regional Fisheries Mechanism (CRFM).

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